The Death of Anna Mann - Colin Hoult

The Death Of Anna Mann

Colin Hoult contemplates the demise of a much-loved character

“It’s so weird that I keep saying ‘she’ instead of ‘me’!” Colin Hoult momentarily looks away in bemusement, as he considers the comic creation that has begun to dominate his career. This has been a hard year for great British women. We’ve witnessed the downfall of a Prime Minister and lost both Her Majesty The Queen and Eastenders legend June Brown. Now Anna Mann, another strong and capable woman who has brought joy to billions, is taking her own final curtain call. 

That’s the plan, at least. Hoult’s tour, The Death Of Anna Mann, is showing few signs of slowing down. The character comedian has just added more dates to take her into 2023, including a prestigious night at London’s Fortune Theatre this month. It’s familiar territory, as he’s performed there with Ricky Gervais on the global superstar’s work-in-progress nights. But the triumph of taking something ostensibly intended for a cabaret stage into the West End’s heart can’t be downplayed. “It’s quite rare for an hour-long Edinburgh show to make that jump. It’s hugely exciting.”

It’s ironic that Anna Mann should be killed off just as her popularity is soaring. An older lady, bristling with confidence, eager to regale an (obviously awestruck) audience with tales of her magnificence, she’s perhaps more popular than ever. It’s not truly a drag show, unless you’re an avid fan of how the form was once presented in dodgy, long-closed working men’s clubs. This is Hoult’s exercise in exploring a more fabulous side to his personality. 

Originally, she rose from a deep pool of aliases Hoult was performing as. “I’ve never liked doing characters where you’re putting someone down. I remember a period when there were a lot of ‘Polish cleaners’ and I always thought that was quite negative. I’ve always tried to find the truth. A lot of my characters were sad, depressed or aggressive, but Anna was the happy and joyous one.” Offering a more whimsical and bizarre side to Hoult’s comedy, she’d end up in his BBC Radio 4 show, Carnival of Monsters. An occasionally unsettling collection of sketches and stories, it was intended to invoke the murky world of circus freak shows – except all the supposed affronts to nature were accountants and karate instructors. Among these was Anna, an audacious force of nature and star of forgotten silver screen classics like Rogue Baker, Who’s For Turkish Delight? and A Bowl For My Bottom.

“There is something very addictive, for me, in being somebody people want to be around. Anna is someone who makes people light up,” the Brighton-based actor and stand-up tells me. “And there is an element where I’m slightly jealous…” A big turning point for Anna’s development, at an early pre-make-up period, came when Hoult was headlining a show. One of the other acts had pulled out, leaving him with not quite enough material to fill the extra stage-time. “I ended up sitting on a stool, as Anna, just chatting and talking about people’s problems. Audience members were telling me what had been going on in their lives. That’s when I realised I can just ‘be’ her. I don’t have to worry about writing jokes, I can just relax in that character.”

While his odd array of different characters, like ‘marginalised’ middle-aged white men or idealistic political activists, have continued to be taken on tour, it’s Anna who steals the shows. And the world around her has had to grow to accommodate that raging ego. This flirtatious and sardonic actress is the survivor of at least 12 husbands. Everything is delivered with a frenzied energy. She’s enthusiastic on an industrial scale, and even the most mundane of audience suggestions are met with squeals of ‘Fuck off! I love it!’. 

The self-proclaimed greatest performer of her generation, the scenarios she’s found herself at the centre of are exuberantly strange and ingeniously written. She’s had unlikely roles in improbable video nasties like Cannibal Bagpipes and could always return to welding if the theatre work dries up. Many of her triumphant anecdotes collapse into surreal meandering. She’s clearly ridiculous, but somehow makes the life of a theatrical icon seem quite normal. 

She’s never been shy of serious subjects though. 2017’s How We Stop the Fascists was critically-lauded, Hoult evidentially delighting in expanding what the character could say and do. In true Anna style, the solution came down to removing hatred from the world with the generous application of theatre – dismantling a few preconceptions and tired tropes along the way. Even in lockdown, she was relentlessly buoying the nation’s spirits with her live-streaming Late Night Cheese, Sex & Isolation Party on NextUpComedy.

Colin Hoult as Anna Mann – Image by Linda Blacker

Hoult is already familiar with the hectic world of the committed thespian. Recognisable from shows like Murder in Successville, Being Human and After Life, he’s found Anna has started informing his other performances. “When I’ve been up for castings, I hate it when people go: ‘Yeah, he’s just a nice bloke.’ I don’t know what to do with that. I like to inhabit a big crazy character.” The older he’s become, the more he’s understanding his own personality. An attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosis has made him appreciate how he often ‘holds back’. People might assume he’s effortlessly confident, especially after seeing his boisterous performances, but Hoult admits to being a little shy.

“Doing this is alright, because I’m talking about myself,” he says with a laugh. “But generally, I find it quite hard.” In a way, Anna has offered an avatar he can use to manoeuvre around the behaviours he’s subconsciously established. “The more you realise these things with neurodiversity, the more you notice it. There are so many people you meet, especially with older people, for whom it just doesn’t exist, or they won’t accept it. Not that you want to go around diagnosing others, but you do sometimes see what they’re trying to repress.”

Anna has gifted him an opportunity to explore something more exuberant and create a larger-than-life persona which gleefully draws from a golden age of the dramatic arts. This is the ‘luvvies’ world, where invariably posh and classically-trained actors engage in a perpetual effusive battle to assert their brilliance. Hoult is undoubtedly approaching this from a position of quiet admiration and sentimentality. “They just have a love of language… and confidence! What I like about Anna is that she believes something, then can suddenly believe totally the opposite with equal conviction.”

“I think a lot of it is hustling. The equivalent now is going on Instagram. When I was first in a green room, for this radio drama when I was young, it was almost like haggling. I guess every profession has that business element to it. I think a lot of it is a combination, it’s a love of art and expression, and then a need to get people to notice and employ you. And I’ve always struggled with the mingling. It’s a real skill.”

With her exaggerations, contradictions and joyous nature, Anna has taught him that it’s OK to be himself and perhaps find courage in his convictions. Although when he’s doing acting work, he might still have to wind it in a bit. “I love doing plays. Going from Edinburgh shows to plays is quite hard, because you’re not allowed to wink and chat to the audience. But you’re learning all the time.” As we speak, he’s in the middle of The Death Of Anna Mann’s season at London’s Soho Theatre. He says it’s been hard work, and any exhaustion hasn’t been helped by compulsively witnessing Britain’s political turmoil through the lens of Twitter. “But even in this run, I’ve learnt better ways to tell jokes. It’s built on so much love, that I can be confident in that. When I started the Edinburgh shows, a few of the audience were like, ‘what is THIS?!’, then enough people get into It, and it starts snowballing. It’s been really fascinating.”

The Death Of Anna Mann has been met with a growing public reaction, just as Hoult intends to mothball the character. “It’s good to end on a high. Going forwards, I really want to create film and TV. To do that, I have to explore other things. I’ve come to accept Anna is a live thing. I’m moving into new territory, and I get bored very quickly… like Anna.” It feels like the right time to move on. The next logical step is to start performing live shows as himself. “It’s quite scary, but exciting, to think what that could be.”

Audiences now find her in receipt of a bleak prognosis from the doctor. Legacy and mortality are very much on her mind, in this ingenious show about grief and death. “It does pop into my head that there might be someone watching who has lost someone. I hope they realise I’m not really taking the piss out of that stuff.” Receiving rave reviews as it tours the country, the work veers from the poignant to full-on silly – offering enough layers to prove everything is coming from a true place. 

“You do almost envy those cultures, where people are wailing at a grave. Here, you can’t show any emotion. Everyone has to ‘calm it down’, but it’s part of life. The real genesis of the show was when my brother died. After that, I did some reading. Because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to deal with it. Nowadays you put a post on social media when someone dies, and everyone puts a sad face or whatever, and that’s about it. I put something on Facebook, and everyone was sending so many messages, which is appreciated, but then you realise nobody had phoned, texted or come round to see me.”

There’s an inherent block in British culture which prevents us discussing death in a pragmatic way. Much of Hoult’s own thoughts and personal experiences have fed into the show, particularly his research into things like Buddhism. He also stumbled onto accounts of how England used to be more open to grieving. After the First World War, so many people died that there was a deliberate attempt to stop people crying in the street. “All the stuff you have nowadays, like if the unions are out or something, and people are saying: ‘Well, in my day, you just kept calm and carried on.’ it all comes from that deliberate repression. There are so many knock-on effects. Don’t get me wrong, I’m into stoicism, but that’s about accepting reality. I think telling people they can’t grieve is so unhelpful.”

Just maybe, in death, Anna has realised her full potential, bringing out the best in people and giving them some hope. “What’s quite funny is quite a lot of people become possessed by Anna and start responding like her. They can’t stop themselves. It’s quite fascinating.” Confident, captivating and extraordinary, Anna Mann seems like an individual who could turn almost any situation to her advantage. Perhaps we can learn from that. I suggest strong personalities offering a new way of looking at the world is how some religious factions start. “Maybe if I ever do another Anna show, that’s what will have happened. It’s ten years later, and she’s in the Amazonian jungle with one of those cults where everyone’s armed!”

Colin Hoult brings The Death of Anna Mann to Brighton’s Komedia on Thurs 10 Nov, London’s Fortune Theatre on Sun 27 Nov and Brighton’s Komedia on Weds 1 March 2023.

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